We didn't expect to be properly functioning humans in Auckland - after an overnight flight from Perth plus time difference, and as predicted, we were not at our best.
But we still had a great day in the city - thanks mostly to our local friends who let us crash their pad for a kip and breakfast in the morning - which freshened us up to check out the fantastic neighbourhood of Ponsonby, which was where our hotel - Abaco on Jervois - was conveniently located.
Ponsonby is great for a stroll and coffee or hardcore shopping - whatever is your fancy. We partook of the former, with a great lunch at Ponsonby Central - an agglomeration of arty shops, high end groceries and eateries.
We headed to the Myers Place playground - granted not for anyone under five years of age, but a very creative space for little tots to run and climb, plus it was close to some nearby the Diwali festivities in town.
For dinner we celebrated our first night in NZ with friends and great Italian at Molten.
After a long drive, it was a relief to find our Air BnB accommodation in Rotorua was fantastic - right on the lake and we were able to have a rest and chat with the owners before heading up the Skyline - a cable car or gondola - which was located very close to our accommodation.
After a late lunch, we were ready for some luge action. All ages can ride - with even the smallest tots able to double up with mum or dad. Our daughter loved it once we were on the right track - we accidently went down the advanced course (easy enough to do as they are not well marked). The 'scenic' track was a lot more fun - with dinosaurs and gorgeous redwoods on the way.
In the evening we headed to the impressive Te Puia Cultural Complex for their evening program 'Te Po' - which involved a Maori cultural performance, buffet dinner including some 'hangi' cooked meat and vegetables and a ride down to the geyser on site where you can sit on thermally heated rocks drinking hot chocolate and watch the geyser blow its top.
A really worthwhile evening - there are many similar options around Rotorua for cultural experiences and we knew such events have to cater to large volumes of tourists so we tried to keep our expectations in check. But we found the evening was very enjoyable - the performances were pleasant in beautiful and atmospheric surroundings, the food was good and we learned more than a few things from our very engaging host/guide.
The Te Puia complex is also open throughout the day and there is much to explore there - as well having its share of geothermal sights, it is also teaching and cultural facility that works to preserve Maori cultural and artistic traditions. I would certainly go back and check it out if in Rotorua again.
Rotorua has loads of great things to do with both younger and older kids - we would definitely return and stay longer.
TAUPO TO MT RUAPEHU
Although only just over 80km from Rotorua, to drive straight to Taupo would miss the thermal wonders of this region, so make sure you leave plenty of time (ideally a day) to explore without the need to backtrack later.
We tried a walk through the Waimangu Valley - quite a hike, but easily doable for anyone of fairly basic fitness.
We did the walk from the visitor entrance to the lake in about an hour at a steady walking pace with the stroller, and took the regular shuttle bus back from the lake. Pushing the pram was not an issue, although it was a less than thrilling experience for our toddler, so we decided to forego some of the other thermal areas, such as Wai-O-Tapu and Orakei Korako which are also on the way to Taupo.
A happier experience for our daughter was the delightful Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, a small but lovely complex of outdoor hot spring pools. We got there early in the day and only had to share it with a few others which made it feel like one of those special hidden places.
Our stay in Taupo was again a great Air BnB find - a large, free standing cottage which is the owners' yoga studio when not rented to travellers.
Taupo has a fairly compact city centre and is easily walkable, with a great playground and Visitor's Centre in the Domain - so good that we returned the next day.
We were all set to head out on the Ernest Kemp - a vintage wooden boat - to visit the Maori rock carvings of Lake Taupo, however the skipper warned us of bad weather so we stuck to the playground and Alok did the voyage alone to get the necessary photos!
From the city it is a short drive to one of Taupo's most famous sights, the Huka Falls. Though not exactly the highest falls, the power and colour of the water is spectacular and the walkway gets you close enough to fully appreciate the experience.
Also just out of town and a must for little ones is Lilliput Farm. The setting of the farm is really quite lovely - very green, with play equipment dotted around the farm - and animal feed is available.
Our evening dining option back in Taupo was worth a mention - The Bistro had great food and terrific service.
Our lovely hosts in Taupo suggested heading up to Mt Ruapehu and we were surprised that the Whakepapa ski field was still open in late October.
Some of the lower altitude, more kid friendly areas were in fact closed when we arrived - understandably - but we took the chairlift up to the cafe area which put us right in the middle of the skiing action and gave dramatic views across the slopes - Mt Ruapehu is of course an active volcano - so is quite different to other ski fields and snowy mountains we have been to.
A toboggan run was begging to be tried out and was lots of fun - that was until we had to climb up the hill again!
Life on a farm
The drive to our farmstay in Raetihi was not only one of the loveliest of our New Zealand travels - it was one of the most beautiful of my travels anywhere. The road itself was less than perfect, but it wound through some of the most verdant, voluptuous hills as it followed the tea coloured river to our destination - aptly named Milk and Honey Cottage at Riverbend Farm.
There is just one very cosy cottage on the farm for guests - which made for a very personal experience. Our hosts were truly delightful and suggested a number of walks and activities for us to do.
The farm itself reminded me of some of the idyllic sounding farms in books by Enid Blyton that I loved as a little girl. There were sheep, chickens, cows (mostly calves as the farm specialises in raising very young calves from neighbouring farms), pigs, cats and working dogs, as well as wild deer roaming the property.
Our daughter was tasked with feeding the pet lamb her evening and morning bottles which saw her being followed around by said lamb for most of the stay!
We also wandered down to the river that bisects the property - a lovely stoney creek that sometimes guests use for catch-and-release trout fishing.
One of the highlights of the stay was our home cooked meal - the ingredients for which were almost exclusively sourced from the Riverbend property - and deliciously prepared venison with vegetables and rhubarb pudding for dessert.
WELLINGTON TO MAPUA
Our drive to Wellington was long and wet, and we looked longingly outside at some of the activities we had planned but had to forgo along the Kapiti coast.
Our accommodation was another Air BnB gem which was walking distance to Central Wellington - very handy. As we had been cooped up in the car all day we headed out into some of Wellington's less spectacular weather.
Apart from getting slightly soggy, we headed down Cuba Street to Floriditas - a gorgeous art nouveau cafe to which we returned the following day for welcoming, calm service and excellent food. Not long after our late lunch, we wandered back to our accommodation via the Mount Vic Chippery - where the offerings differ a bit to your standard chippy.
The weather hadn't improved the following day, but it mattered less as we spent a good chunk of our time at Te Papa, one of the best museums I have been to, with something for everyone, and a fantastic celebration of New Zealand's history, art and culture.
We joined in a fantastic 'Storyplace' session which are pitched at pre-schoolers and highly recommended for little ones. The theme when we visited was Pasifika - offering stories, songs, crafts and an amazing playspace among the galleries dedicated to the Pacific Islands. We learned a Cook Islands Maori song and read a Tongan story, dressed up in grass skirts, made leis and decorated a canoe.
After all that culture, we were looking for something to eat and - having gotten caught in the rain - somewhere to dry out....Just as the rain became unbearable, we happened across a food hall on Willis St which turned out to have amazing food - good Indian and especially good Vietnamese from the memorably named 'Where's Charlie'. I highly recommend searching this place out!
We left Wellington just as the weather cleared up...but we had a ferry to catch to the South Island. It is well worth factoring this trip into your travels if you have time, as travelling through the Marlborough Sounds is spectacular by ferry. We booked on the Interislander service - though there are other options, I don't think we were aware of them when we booked. We paid a little extra for a cabin which meant we had a dedicated spot to relax, and this was handy as it was a long weekend in NZ and our ferry was packed.
On reaching Picton, our hire car was not quite ready - this turned out to be a good thing as Picton is a gorgeous spot and we were pleased we didn't hurry off. Instead we enjoyed lunch overlooking the harbour and stopped at the lovely playground - within very short walking distance from the ferry terminal.
Our long travel day then continued as we headed through the beautiful Marlborough region to a small town just outside Nelson - Mapua, our base for exploring the Abel Tasman National Park and beyond.
Picton to Kaikoura
We chose to base ourselves in Mapua as it is a small, pretty town with a very cute wharf and we found a lovely Air BnB there. It was also a little closer to Abel Tasman National Park than Nelson, which would have been the bigger city option.
The action centres on the wharf - where there are a couple of great restaurants - we chose the Apple Shed for dinner, which was superb and had a beautiful view over the water.
The following morning we made our way to Kaiteriteri - the gateway to the Abel Tasman Park for a short 'Coffee and Cruise' to the famous Split Apple Rock. Very relaxing and gave us a great taste of the area, without taking the whole day on the boat.
We were lucky to arrive in Kaikoura on a picture perfect day - the mountains seemed to run right down to the grey pebbly beach and shining green sea - as the following day everything just looked grey with the return of inclement weather.
Our accommodation was the brilliant Absolute Waterfront, where we enjoyed a very spacious villa and hospitable hosts.
Kaikoura is a place to enjoy nature - bushwalks and whale/dolphin watching adventures. We did neither of those things. We had bad weather and a toddler - not a happy combination for adventures on the high seas.
So we relaxed. Hung out in our villa. Perused the little shops on the main street and tested the cheese at the Kaikoura Cheesemonger - fabulous. Took a little drive to Nin's Bin - a seaspray battered caravan serving up Kaikoura's famous crayfish and whitebait fritters.
During the bright patches we went down the beach to stack up its smooth grey pebbles as high as they would go, and collect driftwood. We don't have too many beaches like that at home, so it was something of a novelty, and I was still finding stones in my handbag when I arrived back in Perth!
One of the highlights of Kaikoura was visiting the seal colony on the approach to the town - while the adult seals tend to stick to the beach, a short walk away from the beach takes you to the pup's waterfall, where they enjoy showing off for visitors in their own natural swimming pool.
We also enjoyed a great evening meal at the Green Dolphin - probably the poshest nosh in Kaikoura, but also very friendly.
We made the best of our day - but our timing was wrong for Kaikoura - but it is a spectacular place and one which we would recommend.
We only had one night in Christchurch, so were determined to make the most of it in spite of ragged weather. It rained pretty solidly during our sightseeing, but the tourist tram made things slightly more bearable and it felt like we packed a lot into our soggy afternoon.
First stop, cheese. We hadn't even checked into our hotel when we went in search of the amazing Canterbury Cheesemongers. The offerings at this divine establishment might sound basic - cheese and bread - and perhaps they are. But such is the bread and such is the cheese - that you will never look at a cheese sandwich quite the same way ever again. If you are a cheese lover - don't miss it.
The Grange, our Christchurch hotel was in a great location (just round the corner from the Cheesemonger!), spotless and very comfy.
We spent the afternoon checking out the Christchurch botanical gardens - great even in the rain; 'container' mall and cardboard cathedral thanks to our tram ticket.
It was a very full afternoon and when we arrived back at the hotel - we needed a short walk and spicy food to soothe frayed nerves and a tired toddler. Spice Paragon was the absolute ticket. Great Thai food which clever waitresses organised to be delivered in a hurry was one of the most welcome things I had seen all day.
Fairlie, Tekapo & Wanaka
During my research I had planned to spend one night at Lake Tekapo, which has a very pretty lake and some well known hotsprings, and draws a crowd.
But for various reasons we stayed in Fairlie to break our journey south - mostly because the accommodation seemed better value, and we were glad we chose Musterers High Country Accommodation - spacious independent villas with open air wood-fired hot tubs - which were really special and would be even better on a clear night.
We also had a lovely meal at the Red Stag Restaurant - a very pretty, historical cottage in the town.
Our drive south allowed us to stop at Lake Tekapo and the Mt John Observatory for some spectacular views, before arriving in Wanaka.
In one of the few really 'fine dining' experiences of the trip, our first stop in Wanaka was the beautiful Bistro Gentil - with superb views and food, we could have spent the whole afternoon there.
Alas, after checking into our B&B there yet better views awaiting, and in terms of vineyards with a view there are probably few in the world that would match Rippon. Just out of town (though easily within walking distance), Rippon commands the most majestic views over Lake Wanaka and surrounding mountains, while friendly cellar door staff will ply you with fantastic tastings and stories of the biodynamic winery's origins.
With our limited time, we spent the rest of our day wandering around the lake and felt as though spring had shown us a little mercy. One of our favourite destinations of the trip - we shall return to Wanaka.
Similarly delightful, but without the views, we headed to Arrowtown for a late breakfast before our final destination of Queenstown. Super cute, though a bit on the touristy side, Arrowtown has lovely cafes and historical walks that bring alive its gold mining past.
After checking in to the Alpine Suites in Queenstown we also made our way to Glenorchy - another lovely small town with easy beautiful walking trails that a pram can be easily pushed around. We enjoyed lunch in the sunshine.
It is easy to see why Queenstown and its surrounds are such a draw for tourists - the botanical gardens and lake in the sunshine are truly magnificent, and the spring sunshine drew out plenty of crowds. The activities are just a bonus. While there are jet boats and bungy jumping galore in Queenstown, we did no extreme sports whatsoever. We went for the family friendly, but no less memorable, option and enjoyed the High Country Farm lunch and tour and the trip aboard the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw. This was a first class experience with outstanding food in the most beautiful setting - I highly recommend it to absolutely anyone.